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California Colleges Are Walking Back Reopening Plans — But Can They Keep Campus Employees Safe?

Tony Webster

As California colleges rethink their back-to-school plans amid a statewide spike in coronavirus cases, it’s not just their students they need to worry about protecting.

Many campus employees are decades older than the students they teach and support, putting them at higher risk of complications if they contract the virus.

Colleges still planning to hold in-person classes say they’ll use a range of safety measures, from masks and social distancing to requiring that students report any symptoms and wipe down desks after they’ve used them. Still, some faculty members said they’re concerned about the threat to their health, and that of their coworkers.

“We don’t know a lot about the virus and its effects on different people yet,” said Alison Black, a lecturer at University of California San Diego. “I want to make sure that I am remote until such time that I’m convinced it’s completely safe.”

The chance of an average 18-year-old student dying if infected by COVID-19 is about 1 in 2,000, UC San Francisco epidemiologist Jeffrey Martin said, but that number increases quickly when talking about older campus employees.

“The risk there (of dying) if you become infected now would be something like 3 in 100,” Martin said. “Much, much higher.”

About 85% of universities nationwide said as of July 14 they planned to bring at least some students back to campus in the fall — though plans have been changing at dizzying speed.

UC Berkeley, for instance, scrapped its previous plans to embrace a mix of in-person and online classes after a wave of student infections connected to the campus’s Greek system caused total cases to increase from 23 to at least 70 in a single week. “The fraternity outbreak gave us a glimpse of how congregate living could really seed infections,” Chancellor Carol Christ said at a Chronicle of Higher Education forum Monday.

The University of Southern California had already walked back its plans for a hybrid semester on July 2 in light of a regional surge in coronavirus cases. The institution is now planning for an online fall.

California colleges that have proposed hybrid models for the fall include University of California campuses in Davis, San Diego and Santa Cruz, along with Stanford University and multiple smaller private schools.

The American College Health Association released guidelines for maintaining employee safety while reopening, recommending online alternatives whenever possible on top of wearing face masks, phasing out the return of employees and staggering shifts – protections that many campuses have vowed to honor in their reopening plans.

“No university is saying their instruction is going to look exactly the same as last fall,” said Dr. Sarah Van Orman, Chief Health Officer for USC Student Health.

But Jean Chin, a physician who sits on the AHCA’s Covid-19 task force, told journalists at an education reporting conference Thursday that the ideal scenario to protect students’ and professors’ health would be to test the entire campus population every two to three days. No college, she said, is prepared to do that — with the possible exception of a few large universities like UC San Diego that have their own medical centers.

“Clearly, there’s not enough testing,” she said. “None of our states are doing enough testing.”

Martin, the epidemiologist, said there is no single right way for campuses to protect staff when they reopen. But when it comes to in-person learning, he said low-risk options may require colleges to get creative.

“If faculty and students teach in outdoor conditions, they could see each other in small groups,” Martin said, noting that the lack of air circulation means the virus is more likely to linger in the air and infect others. “The difference between indoor and outdoors is a big deal with this.”

Professors could host a few in-person, outdoor meetings early in the academic term to allow students to establish in-person connections, Martin said, before moving the course online. UC Davis has already announced plans to hold some classes outside under tents.

Of course, no amount of planning can predict the future. Still more campuses that wanted to adopt a hybrid model could end up going online-only if local cases are too high.

All of this uncertainty has taken a toll on university employees, who are weighing decisions about how to do their jobs effectively, keep themselves healthy and fulfill administrators’ reopening schemes during unprecedented times.

Robin McCloskey, an adjunct lecturer at Dominican University in San Rafael, is concerned about teaching in person because she is over 60 years old. But as a teacher of studio arts, she said hosting courses strictly online comes with “significant drawbacks.”

“Instead of having a class of 18 and meeting for three hours, I think what I’ll be doing is meeting with groups of six for an hour each,” McCloskey said, adding that this plan will mean she’s on campus one day a week.

Outdoor learning is a part of Dominican University’s plan for keeping students and employees safe, according to a June 15 statement, on top of mandating masks and installing Plexiglass barriers in high-traffic areas.

McCloskey said adjunct faculty on her campus were able to secure increased flexibility in teaching remotely thanks to protections negotiated by her union. But not all university employees feel they’re able to influence reopening plans on their campuses. Some said faculty and staff representation on task forces convened to address the pandemic has been slim, despite the fact that the decisions will directly impact employee health.

UC San Diego has said it will regularly test students, faculty and staff for the virus and phase in the return of employees to campus starting in September as part of its “Return to Learn” plan. But Black, the lecturer who co-chairs a campus union representing non-senate faculty and librarians, said she thought reopening plans were driven more by a desire to fill the dorms with students — and continue to collect room and board payments — than by safety.

The university recommended that multiple courses in the social sciences division switch to a hybrid model, she said, despite lecturers saying they would feel safer teaching online.

“Most of us ended up wanting to continue remotely and they said, ‘Well, that won’t work for our model,’ ” Black said.

UC San Diego said in a statement that task forces made up of faculty, students and staff helped shape its reopening plans. “Taskforce decisions have been guided by evidence, science and expertise from faculty and researchers in our School of Medicine and Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science and from healthcare experts at UC San Diego Health in conjunction with current state and county public health guidelines,” the statement says.

The California College of the Arts decided earlier this week to cancel its planned reopening in response to guidance issued by the San Francisco Department of Public Health. The decision came after some staff had criticized the idea of bringing students back to a campus that lacks licensed medical personnel and relies on public safety officers to respond to first aid emergencies.

“Upper administration makes decisions from top to bottom and the people left to deal with it are (staff),” said Kate Goyette, a printmaking studio manager at the college. “Then the workload and what our jobs entail just keeps expanding.”

The college had said hands-on learning was important to its mission and it had planned to limit classes to 25 to 50% of their normal capacity.

Non-faculty service workers are generally among the lowest paid on campuses and it is less likely that their jobs can be done remotely. This is the case for custodial staff, for instance, who must report to work in person and whose role has become essential in combating the pandemic.

Jessie Hernandez, a senior cook at UC Riverside, remained working in a campus eatery from March through June, where he described social distancing as an impossible feat.

“In the kitchen it is more difficult than in other areas,” he said. “If you’re on grounds or you’re a landscaper, you’re like 20 feet away or you work by yourself. In the kitchen, it’s really small.”

As the pandemic tightened its grip on the University of California budget in early July, Hernandez was one of 200-plus support staff to be laid off, according to their union, AFSCME Local 3299. He said he loves working for the university — especially appreciating the strong benefits package — but that the decision to lay off some of the campus’s lowest paid workers amid the pandemic felt cruel.

Hernandez said he believes his work is essential and that he would return to the job if he could, despite surging cases in the region.

Bonnie Kaiser, associate professor of anthropology and global health at UC San Diego, interviewed two dozen faculty and staff to better inform the campus’s Return to Learn program.

She said her research showed staff concerns are often based more on economics than safety.

“Staff will say, ‘I will do what I need to do to keep my job, I feel really lucky to have my job, I feel really lucky with what UCSD has been providing in terms of benefits,” Kaiser said.

Faculty members, on the other hand, felt “ambivalent” toward the idea of returning to campus, as they did not want to compromise their safety but continued to grieve the benefits of face-to-face instruction, Kaiser said.

Among the professors willing to teach in-person in the fall are those with a strong allegiance to face-to-face instruction, like 78-year-old UC Santa Barbara math professor Chuck Akemann, who blasted the lack of connection provided by online teaching.

“Staring at this computer in front of me, I had 97 students out of my class and I had one who actually showed up and put their face on there,” Akemann said.

The longtime UC Santa Barbara professor is convinced he would survive Covid-19, and doesn’t want to be bogged down by the fear that he wouldn’t. After all, he said, he’s lived through much worse, including the polio epidemic when he was in grade school.

“I guess you just can’t spend your whole life, especially when there isn’t much time left in it, to be worried about that,” Akemann said.

UC San Diego lecturer Black said she will also miss having personal, one-on-one moments with students, but she knows it will be a while before her classroom will look like that again.

“It’s already depressing to be teaching remotely, but I actually think it would be a lot more depressing to try and have to go back to ‘normal’ when clearly things are gonna be so disturbingly different,” she said.

Bella Ross is a contributor to the CalMatters College Journalism Network. She's a recent graduate of San Diego State University, where she served as editor in chief of The Daily Aztec.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.